Monday, February 2, 2009

Random Reflections: Altars and Ancestors

I usually try to have a point to my posts even if they are just anecdotes about the boys (then the point is just that they are cute or funny). Sometimes, though, I start to muse about life in Vietnam and never find my way to a point. I would like to say something profound that pulls the experiences into perspective, but I haven't gotten there yet. All this to say that if a post is titled "Random Reflections" it is really just that. Read it as if you were flipping through a newly developed pile of photos. I haven't put them in order yet, or even taken out the ones that are out-of-focus or unflattering. I thought I'd let you look over my shoulder while I'm still sorting.


We have a room in our house for dead relatives. It is dusty and stacked with boxes. The altar is functioning temporarily as a storage shelf. It is a pleasant room with windows on both ends. One even overlooks the alley and the comings and goings of the neighborhood. In the event that we need to house some dead relatives, they will not be bored. There is always much to see.

Some houses keep a light on at night in their dead relatives room. I can see the red bulbs glowing here and there from the window in our upper stairwell. At holidays and death anniversary days our neighbors burn supplies. Fake U.S. dollar bills, paper shirts and ties, cardboard houses and motorbikes all go up in smoke. The economy in the afterlife depends heavily on prosperity in the present. It is a tidy circle. Each keeps the other fat and happy.

Some say ancestor worship is just an expression of loyalty, duty, love--like putting flowers at a grave. "Worshiping ancestors" is a misnomer. It is more like honoring them. Others take the practice more seriously, more superstitiously. They believe that dead relatives determine whether one is prosperous or poor, happy or discontent, healthy or unhealthy. In either case, reverence for ancestors is woven deeply into the fabric that is Vietnam. A teacher told us once that a person can not be Vietnamese without keeping an ancestor altar at home. Catholics, she insisted, simply place their shelf for Mary a few inches above their shelf for dead relatives. Voila! Dilemma solved. A Vietnamese colleague once speculated that if Protestants would just loosen their proverbial top button and let people keep their incense and altars and fake sacrifices, the religion would explode. After all, Jesus was a nice enough guy. Why must one forsake father and mother to follow him.

These assumptions and questions are hard for us, but they are even harder for our Vietnamese Christian friends. For them it is all more than observation. These are the things that their faith confronts. It leaves me wondering what in my own culture clashes with following Christ. Is it obvious and odious to me or do I shrug and dismiss it as just a normal part of being American? This is somehow harder to answer.

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